Left alone with Henri Le Sidaner

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

There are several points at which the conventional language of art criticism breaks down. The French painter, Henri Le Sidaner, the obscure but distinguished subject of an exhibition at the likewise relatively obscure but distinguished Museum of Modern Art Saitama, is one of these.

With a career that started in the latter decades of the 19th century and continued until his death in 1939, Le Sidaner is often categorized as either a symbolist or an intimist painter.

The French Symbolist movement is more typically associated with poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, who, depending on one’s critical viewpoint, aimed at either expressing absolute truths or striking “cool” philosophical poses.

The movement, which had a broad influence on fin-de-siècle French culture, however, also included some well-known painters, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau. But while these painters used obviously symbolic elements in their works, such as allegorical figures and dream imagery, Le Sidaner’s paintings can best be described as soulful, romanticized renditions of reality.

In 1886, in the “Symbolist Manifesto,” Jean Moréas, the Parisian-based Greek writer and leading theorist of the movement, wrote, “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake. Here, they are only perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”

By contrast Le Sidaner’s paintings of tables set for tea, flowery gardens, and scenic views seem to be painted very much for their own sake.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of his mature style is a near absence of human figures. Sometimes, as in the bleak, wintry scenery of the little church of “L’Église au clair de lune, Buicourt” (“Church in the moonlight, Buicourt,” 1904), the absence is understandable, but in other works, like “Le Goûter sous bois, Gerberoy” (“Picnic beneath the trees, Gerberoy,” 1925), the lack of human forms seems more pointed and preferred, suggesting a psychological quirk as much as an aesthetic choice.

In this painting, Le Sidaner gives a delightful glimpse of a picnic laid out in a sun-dappled woodland glade. The fact that food has been unpacked, bottles emptied, and a lady’s hat hung on a tree makes the absence of figures seem somewhat odd.

If his paintings are peopled at all, it is through buildings set in twilight, where we notice one or two lit windows denoting a human presence. It is certainly difficult to read any “primordial Ideals” into such works.

As an intimist — a seldom-used category that includes the painters Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, both better known as members of the esoteric Nabis group — Le Sidaner’s work, again, only fits if we make it fit.

The definition of “intimism” is the recording of intimate personal and psychological experiences through art or literature. In painting terms, it more specifically refers to capturing the light and atmosphere of the fleeting moment and the transient mood. If you wanted to split hairs, you could say that this is an almost meaningless definition as Impression and even realism aimed at similar effects.

Stylistically, intimist painters veered toward rich colors toned down to achieve harmony, something that is also typical of Le Sidaner’s work.

One painting, which I suspect has been mistitled — “Les Maisons au clair de lune, Landerneau” (“Houses in the moonlight, Landerneau,” 1915) — shows, rather than moonlight, that moment we occasionally experience in the early morning or at dusk when subtle pink light suffuses everything, evoking a mood of reflective calm.

Taken in total, Le Sidaner’s oeuvre seems to be set in a perpetual, default twilight, the same moment eternally prolonged in painting after painting, and applied to building after building and garden after garden. The true nature of “intimate personal and psychological experience” is that we are buffeted by ever-changing moods and sensations. This sense of a variety of moods and mental conditions precisely captured is not the one we get from Le Sidaner’s paintings.

Instead, what emerges is the consistent character of the man; of a delicate, refined, rather reclusive and somewhat jaded personality. We get a sense of someone who was clearly more comfortable than happy and whose dominant mood was one of gentle elegy.

His paintings have a natural affinity with the effete world conjured up in the writings of his contemporary, Marcel Proust. Perhaps it is for this reason that Le Sidaner’s main claim to fame is his inclusion in the fourth volume of Marcel Proust’s rambling masterpiece “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In search of lost time,” 1913-1927), where he is cited as a distinguished but not great painter, but one who is nevertheless collected obsessively by one of the peripheral characters.

“Henri Le Sidaner: The Painter Who Loved Roses and Moonlight” at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, runs till Feb. 5; open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.momas.jp/3.htm (Japanese only).